By: Avi Strauss  | 

The Paper from the Past, The Paper of Tomorrow?

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then a desire to plagiarize my predecessors’ opening editorials on freedom of the press must mean that I’d like to take them out for a three-course dinner. Fully aware of the breadth and clarity with which many editors have articulated visions for this paper, there were times before writing my own editorial where I wished I could lift their words from the archives, or at least paraphrase large chunks and call it a day. The past has certainly produced more original arguments for an independent and free media than I could devise on my own.

Keep with me, recycling and reformulating clichés of editorialists’ past is an exercise in which I wish to engage briefly, if only to reaffirm that those words still remain true. The length dedicated to these affirmations carries no correlation with their importance or significance:

Campus journalism is an essential component to a vibrant campus and communal debate.

Shining a light on impropriety and indifference is a core function of this paper.

The Commentator is perhaps the primary historical document of this institution, with its robust and content-driven columns and sections, and will continue to be such.

Responsible reporting is our duty, and this editorial board will strive to fulfill that central charge.

We are very open to serious, constructive feedback.

Openness to a broad spectrum of ideas is vital for a paper to occupy its proper place in the free exchange of opinion and thought. The need for an undergraduate paper to lend a platform to any undergraduates who wish to express themselves only redoubles this point.

The returning editors to this paper’s Board demonstrate through their track record that the above are our core ideals. This paper’s newer editors, chosen for their hard work and passion for journalistic integrity, are prepared to maintain these principles as well.

Throat clearing aside, thoughtful and frequent readers of these pages know the above to be true. Hopefully our new readers have faith that my curtness conveys my seriousness.

The question remains: Where do we go from here?

According to any objective timeline, YU is at a moment of unique historical significance. New presidents don’t come often for our university (there have been just five Yeshiva presidents since Dr. Bernard Revel assumed the formal position in 1915). Based on the slogan of the investiture—“The World of Tomorrow”—it seems President Berman is maneuvering to make this moment about more than just formal proceedings and ceremonial medallions.

The world of tomorrow President Berman described includes many changes that YU needs to function as a university at the cutting edge of several developing fields. Nonetheless, as the president and other featured speakers described, any progress is to be done with a keen awareness of our past, honoring, rather than sacrificing, our history in order adapt and evolve appropriately.

Based on my own interactions with the president, I trust that he is sincere when he articulates this type of vision. It will be upon him and his administration to move beyond these mere talking points in the years ahead. Because while such platitudes make effective fuel for a merry-go-round of positive outlooks and generic talking points, they don’t do much in thumbing the scale of bureaucratic slogging in favor of the student body, nor will they untie the financial corset squeezing YU at the hips.

But presidents don’t need editorialists without administrative backgrounds to pretend to lecture on how they can best do their jobs—there are many other ways for me to spill ink. Rather, at this unique juncture, it is incumbent upon this paper to figure out its own role in a changing university, irrespective of what becomes of “Tomorrow’s” promised changes.

To figure out that role, some more brief accounting of the past is warranted. For over 81 years, The Commentator has served, as I stated earlier, as an historical document for this institution, recording key events and key narratives that developed over time.

We must be at the forefront of generating originals: new solutions, new initiatives, and new content.”

In combing through the archives that tell the tales of Yeshiva’s past, nothing more striking occurred to me than the plodding repetition—every few years, the same conflicts arise, and the same articles are printed, just with new names and new dates. Limited by short institutional memory, student bodies come and go, unaware that the problems they bemoan agitated students of the past, and oblivious to the fact that future students will contend with the same issues.

For decades, in these pages, students have detailed rifts between the right- and left-wings of the undergraduate programs. No meal plan price has been raised without discontent (see this issue for the latest in a never-ending saga). The student constitution has been written and rewritten, most recently in 2013, just before many students who wished to rewrite it yet again set foot on campus. Student leaders even met with a (different) Dean Bacon to discuss problems with the dual-curriculum in 1966.

It’s not for naught that Tocqueville said, “history is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.”

No doubt the students leading the charge when any given issue arose were ambitious and passionate, attempting to right wrongs. And often progress was made and issues resolved. But many other times, problems languished. Students became fatigued and disinterested, graduating and bequeathing a mostly good institution with several unresolved problems to its next generation of undergraduates.

While some might use the above information as a reason to despair, I see it as a wondrous opportunity. We are not bound by any religious law or social contract to join in the cycle of disorderly, if at times justified, complaints. Instead, for our collective sanity, we can move to make YU’s history linear instead of circular.

And to be sure, I have witnessed several students overcome the hurdles and challenges to change something for the better, and have that change outlast their own campus tenure. Changing the Chanukah concert to ChanukahFest and relentlessly pursuing student involvement in certain academic decisions like changes to Core requirements are just two of many instances where students who wished to do, rather than sit back and complain, effected changes that outlasted their own time here.

But whether it’s tension between disparate parts of the undergraduate community, presidents exchanging ceremonial regalia and stating Yeshiva philosophy, or Editors-in-Chief revisiting their predecessors’ work, we must move beyond simple copies of the past. We must be at the forefront of generating originals: new solutions, new initiatives, and new content.

Now, more than ever before, this holds true. It is during times of significant change where positive reform can occur, as long as we can balance our passions with level-headedness, and our egos with tempered respect for those who can assist us.

Bearing this in mind, this year The Commentator plans to revisit and reprint articles from the past for the issues of the present. Hopefully, this will give greater perspective to old problems that are rearing their heads once again, just with different names. Moreover, so as not to become disheartened, an historical lens will remind us of the times where things actually did change and students’ petitions were heeded.

Secondly, while mirroring some of the amazing journalistic work done in the past to break important stories and diligently cover ongoing issues, it is our hope to investigate in new ways, utilizing data and analysis to yield fruitful, content-driven discussions, rather than lend fodder for emotional rants. By providing previously unknown, complex information in easily readable forms, we hope to continue a transition from a paper with deep roots in the past, to a paper ready to adapt to the future.

In this way, we too can take part in YU’s World of Tomorrow.